By Gustav Niebuhr
Dear Pope Benedict:
From what I’ve read, no one expects you to have a very pleasant time on your pastoral visit to Great Britain. Some suspect you of going there deliberately to poach conservative Church of England priests, men alienated by the prospect of their church’s consecrating female bishops. Others–I’ve heard them described as “militant atheists”–don’t want you there at all. Period.
I’m sure it hasn’t helped that an expert on your pontificate, quoted on American radio yesterday evening, said your visit to Britain would be part of your ongoing critique of “modernity.” That could be a problem. On one hand, the word covers an immense amount of ground, pretty much what’s in the eye of the beholder. It could be the stuff we all ought to agree on: advances in medical technology, the spread of democracy. But to some people debating modernity refers to a whole menu of “culture war” fare and, trust me on this, they will be quite ready to pick up the glove you appear to have cast down. Let’s not forget that your host government prints a picture of Charles Darwin on its 10-pound note.
You’ve also set foot in a nation whose relationship to Christianity is a tricky one to navigate, especially for someone in your unique position. For starters, Britain is home to a not-so-latent anti-Catholicism nourished by the bloody political struggles of the British Reformation, struggles that erupted, periodically, for two centuries. Historical memory runs deep: it wasn’t so long ago that one could find British children who well remembered reading fresh editions of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a vastly popular 16th century tome that graphically emphasizes the suffering of English Protestants under Queen Mary I and her Catholic administration.
Secondly, British Christianity has borne the burden of a certain national mythology–at least in some quarters. I hope among your advisors you’ve got at least one person familiar with William Blake, or at least his poem, “Jerusalem,” which was rendered into a very popular Anglican hymn about a century ago. Its gist is that Jesus–yes, Jesus!–traveled to Britain, and it is there–”in England’s green and pleasant land”–that the new Jerusalem will be built. Very hard to top that. Plus, speaking of popular mythology, you’ve landed in the nation where stories have long been told about King Arthur and the Holy Grail.
Finally, the contemporary British view of religion (by which most Britons mean Christianity) is, well, jaded. The church there is a state institution. Not many people go these days and it gets a lousy press (this despite having a very intelligent and interesting leader, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury). One could argue that its spiritual hold on the British people has long been in decline.
There’s a nice literary take on the situation: three decades back, the British writer J.L. Carr published a very short novel set just after the First World War, A Month in the Country. In one scene, the village’s Anglican priest confesses the difficulties of his work to an artist, an unbeliever. “The English are not a deeply religious people,” the priest says. “Even many who attend divine service do so from habit. Their acceptance of the sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose from the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord.”
So that’s what you’re up against, Pope Benedict. And here I humbly offer an alternative: get back on that jet and fly to the United States. We value religious faith here–or at least we like to think we do. We also treat prominent religious figures rather nicely, affording them a celebrity status without subjecting them to tabloid nosiness. Think, if you’d like, about the Dalai Lama and the enthusiasm he generates. Or just remember your pastoral visit here a few years back. Not much controversy, lots of adulation. They didn’t call this place the New World for nothing.